With a special service livestreamed from Bishopscourt, we joined Bishop Rachel and Guy Treweek for an Easter Day service
The signed version of the service is now available (BSL from 12 minutes).
Full text of Bishop Rachel’s sermon:
Easter Morning 12 April 2020:John 20:1-18
Our gospel reading began with a tomb – a place of burial. Sadly that’s all part of a rather familiar landscape at the moment.
We have very quickly become used to hearing about death. There are daily statistics of those who have died from covid19, but the numbers become more poignant when we hear the names – specific stories of named individuals.
And our gospel reading about a tomb is one involving some named individuals – individuals who are bewildered and unsettled. Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb – it’s early in the morning and still dark, and things are not as she had expected. The stone which kept the tomb closed has been removed and so she immediately assumes that the body of Jesus has also been removed. This is soon confirmed by Simon Peter and the other disciple, we assume to be John.
And there is confusion and a lack of understanding. Mary says ‘I don’t know where they have laid him; I don’t know where his body is’. And we are told that when the disciples see the empty tomb they too don’t understand.
I wonder how often in recent days we and those around us have expressed some sort of confusion and bewilderment. After all, life as we know it has changed so fast in recent weeks. It’s been unsettling and we don’t understand.
The events of that first Holy Week also moved very quickly. Those disciples at the empty tomb had been with Jesus only a few days earlier, sharing in the Jewish Passover meal; and they must have remembered so vividly Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey and being hailed as king and people shouting Hosanna. Then so quickly after that celebratory meal the tide had turned, and Jesus had been arrested and the nightmare had begun to unfold, and it ended not only in tears but in a brutal death as Jesus was nailed to a cross. And now in their grief there still is no peace for Jesus’ followers – someone has removed Jesus’ body from the tomb. The uncertainty is not over.
Last year on Easter day I also spoke about times of uncertainty, but then it was about the uncertainty around the withdrawal from the European Union. Perhaps that now already seems like a distant memory. After all, the B word has been overtaken by the C word. Now our uncertainty is not focused on Brexit but on Coronavirus, and we still find ourselves living amid huge uncertainty.
Yet on this Easter morning (as last year, and indeed as on every morning) what we are faced with is something very certain – The resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As Mary stands weeping outside the tomb someone speaks to her. She thinks it is the gardener, but then he speaks her name – ‘Mary’ – and she recognises that this person is Jesus risen from the dead. Suddenly in a moment everything changes, yet again, and it’s personal and names are important.
On a number of occasions recently I have expressed my dislike of the phrase social distancing. Yes, it is vital that we abide by the rule of physical distancing but this is not a time to be socially distanced from one another. Relationship matters. Names matter.
I think we learnt a lot about socialdistancing through all the tension and division around Brexit, but what has been inspiring through thistime of uncertainty sparked by a pandemic, is that people seem to be rediscovering the power of social connection. Thousands of people standing on doorsteps or at windows, clapping and banging things to show appreciation for the NHS and all those who are serving us – that is social togetherness.Perhaps in adversity we are discovering more of what it means to be interdependent human beings, each with a name and a story.
And at the heart is love. Love which began with the love of God who created us to live in relationship – our God who knows us by name and loves us – treasures us more than we can dare to imagine. Just look at the cross. Just look at the empty tomb.
And when Jesus speaks Mary’s name she knows that love, and she wants to hold tight to Jesus. His death had brought a distancing which had been unbearable. Yet, Jesus speaks words to Mary which seem to almost impose a distancing: ‘Do not hold on to me’. Then he speaks strange words of ascending. Strange words that will become a reality in due course when the risen Jesus leaves the earth and the Holy Spirit will come to be Christ’s presence in every time and every place (but that’s the next bit of the narrative which we will celebrate at the festival of Pentecost in 50 days time).
Standing by the empty tomb, Mary doesn’t understand any of that. She has encountered the risen Christ and now she wants life to go back to normal – Life as she had known it. Yet it cannot and it will not. Life will never be the same again.
I’ve found myself saying that several times in recent days. This time of covid19 has changed us – challenged us – and I hope that we might continue to learn more about love and kindness and social closeness even in the face of physical distancing. But even more than that I yearn for us to take hold of the certainty that nothing can undo the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It has happened. And nothing can separate us from the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Not even covid19. Not even death. Nothing can change the reality that you and I are named individuals – unique and precious – known by God and known by name.
And in our confusion and in our ‘not understanding’, and in our places of fear and grief, Jesus draws closer than close, not in physical body but in spirit. And Jesus speaks our name and invites us to speak his – to reach out and to say yes to his love and his forgiveness. May it be so. AMEN.
Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester